Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 9, 1953
NUMBER 48, PAGE 10-11b

Baptists Argue Open Membership

Toronto Daily Star

(Editor's Note: As an item of interest to our readers, we publish this lengthy news dispatch which appeared in the Toronto Daily Star of Nov. 10, 1952. It shows clearly how a liberalizing, ecumenically minded element in a religious body can effect fundamental changes in doctrine. There is food for thought in this for those brethren who dismiss lightly the "ecumenical" brethren in the Lord's church.)

Members of the Park Road Baptist Church, one of Toronto's leading "Convention" churches, have received the report of a special committee which makes two proposals: (1) The establishment of associate membership, with limited privileges, for non-immersed believers; or, as an alternative, (2) open membership. This report "A", to which there is appended a dissenting report "B", says that "we take open membership to mean that any professing Christian is eligible for membership in our church without the necessity of baptism in any form."

In conclusion report "A" says: "The members of the committee rather favor open membership, but we would like the deacons to consider the question whether it would be wiser to approach the church, as a first step, on the subject of associate membership, leaving open membership for later development, but we do agree on this, that the matter is urgent and important and the need is now."

Each Baptist Church is self-governing, so Park Road could adopt either innovation for itself without affecting any other church. Yorkminster has already adopted associate membership, but open membership is a much more radical departure. Most other Protestant churches make membership contingent upon baptism of some kind.

The movement for a change is evidently to be on a much wider front than a single church, for report "A" notes that there was a memorandum prepared by Chancellor Gilmour of McMaster University on the issue in 1946, and there has since been considerable correspondence going on.

Would Remove Barriers

Listing the advantages and disadvantages that would accrue from the contemplated change, the report states it would remove barriers preventing worthy people from coming into Baptist membership, and preventing Baptist bodies from participating in important programs with other Protestant communions.

The committee says the recommendation "might even end a certain element of insincerity in the instances where the ordinance itself is observed, because there must be many instances where newcomers from other denominations who wish to join our fellowship, for instance, because of marriage to a Baptist, must undertake to pass through the waters of baptism somewhat more as an inconvenient necessity than as a very sacred obligation."

Among the disadvantages, the committee mentioned the possibility that over the long period baptism by immersion might fall into disuse. "A Baptist Church practicing open' or 'associate' membership would, of course, contrive to be a Baptist Church, frankly preaching and practicing baptism by immersion, making that ordinance voluntary rather than a condition of fellowship, particularly for prospective members who were already members of non-Baptist churches in good standing," the report states.

"Delicate" Question

A very "delicate" question is whether Baptists would accept so fundamental a change. The committee expressed the belief that some form of educational work should be done leading up to the change.

If the radical change is decided upon, Park Road will not be the first Canadian Baptist Church to tread the new road. In the Maritimes a number of Baptist churches have already moved in this direction. First Baptist Church in Montreal and Yorkminster Church in Toronto have also adopted the practice of admitting associate members on the basis of their Christian experience, members of churches other than Baptist.

"There is an almost fatal tendency to assume that what was done 100 years ago or 300 years ago is good enough now," the report declares. "Indeed the thought seems to be that because it was done 100 years ago or 300 years ago we should not lay sacrilegious hands on it now. Such a mental attitude spells paralysis and is the very opposite of healthy growth."

Unless the present statistical trend is stopped, the Baptist Church in Canada is doomed to extinction, the report suggests. "At the rate at which we are going, in another four or five generations, our ranks will be reduced to a mere handful compared to our present numbers," its says. The report pointed out that while in 1901, Canadian Baptists numbered 5,920 per 100,000 population, in 1941, the ration was 4,203 per every 100,000 of population. The Baptist population in Canada today is around the 500,000 mark.

Secondary Report

A secondary and minority report to be presented to the deaconate emphatically disagrees with the recommendation for the liberalizing of rules of church membership. "It is our conclusion that a reemphasis upon our traditional position furnished a more substantial and happier basis for our conduct as a church today," this report states. Associate membership, it contends, might easily give the impression that the Baptist Church regards baptism by immersion as non-essential. "By making ourselves too much the same as other churches we encourage a drift away from our Baptist body, on the ground there really is no essential difference," it states.

Started Around 1610

The Baptist denomination came into being around 1610. This group did not practice baptism by immersion until 1642. However, two years earlier, a splinter group known as the Particular Baptists adopted baptism by immersion.

If baptism by immersion should pass from the scene, it would not be the first New Testament practice to disappear through desuetude. Chancellor G. P. Gilmour of McMaster University has catalogued a number of New Testament practices that have fallen into disuse. Among them are the holy kiss, foot washing among the saints, and baptism for the dead.

The dissenters cannot see that baptism by immersion should be any bar to admission to ecumenical programs. "Ecumenical bodies are usually so anxious to have others affiliate they are willing to accept almost any limitations," states the report. It also dismissed the argument that newcomers to the church may be given to insincerity. "The usual impelling motive to join a Baptist Church is because one has come to the conclusion that its practice more nearly accords with New Testament teaching than any other. Perhaps we should be better off if we screened our membership more carefully — as carefully for instance as the Church of Rome does with its converts or as Baptist churches are supposed to do.

No One Is Prepared

"If conviction on matters such as baptism plays no part in our thinking, we should be prepared to join organically with other Protestant bodies. But no one is prepared for such a radical move," stress the dissenters.